Friday, February 27, 2015

Oslo Synagogue Muslim Peace Ring - Gestures and Garments - Tetzaveh

The shame of some Muslims’ hate, it has been disapprovingly claimed, ‘was being covered up this week by inspiring media reports of a circle of Muslims protecting a synagogue in Oslo’ (1). This heart-warming and graceful gesture followed the murder of a Jewish volunteer guard in Copenhagen by a Muslim extremist. An eye witness account by a Rabbi who participated in this event described his moving experience of the circle of peace. It was “initiated by Muslim teenagers to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first (2)”. However, initial glowing reports were followed by articles and comments that questioned the number of Muslims and the value of the gesture.

The critics are wrong. Three different first person accounts confirm that Muslims turned out in very large numbers for this event (3). The critics also fail to account for the power of ‘gracious spectacles’ to create reality, or what might be termed the spiritual qualities of mere garments.

The backlash against the Oslo ring of Muslims who stood around a Synagogue is ironic. Late last year
I joined Christians and a small group of Jews from the inner-West Chavura in a gesture of solidarity with Muslims on the steps of Lakemba Mosque. One critical Jewish leader asked when Muslims would come to a Synagogue to reciprocate the gesture. Now that it has happened, it is not considered good enough. The fact that one of the organisers, Ali Chishti, had expressed anti-Jewish sentiments some years earlier, in 2008, was trotted out.  However, at the peace ring event, Chishti apologised for his hateful words against Jews demonstrating the potential for haters to change.

These gestures are more than a commitment to coexistence - they also contribute to the construction of a reality of togetherness. This reinforced reality counters the extremist narrative of hate and the broader “us & them” perspective. It is not good enough to be peace loving in our hearts, although that is ultimately what matters. Yet, there is power in the spectacles of peace in the long hard battle for hearts and minds to embrace diversity and reject hate.

External appearances matter. Adam and Eve’s dignity was restored after they ate forbidden fruit, having been provided with clothing by God himself (4). The text speaks of clothing made of hide (Or,- עורin Hebrew), perhaps that of the serpent (5), however, the Midrash renders it as clothing of light (אור Also pronounced Or, but spelled with the letter Alef instead of an Ayin) (6). The word “naked”, carries connotations of shame and is used figuratively to refer to the feeling of being emotionally exposed.

In the Torah reading this week we have specific divine instructions relating to garments of “honour and glory” (7) to be worn by the priests. These garments are to be made in order to sanctify Aaron and to turn him into a priest (8). The garments themselves brought atonement for sins, the hat for arrogance, etc. (9). Our sages go so far as to say that “for all the time that their garments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them and their holiness endures in them, (but if) their garments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them (either) (10).  Appearances can create reality!

The importance of “clothes” in its various forms is contested. One scholar suggests that “in truth” the clothes of the priests merely point to the “inner garments that the priests of God need to dress their souls with, that is the ideas, emotions and good dispositions which are the garments of the soul” (11). Perhaps the interplay between the external garment or gesture and the inner reality it relates to reinforce each other (12). A gesture is meaningless if there is nothing in the heart for it to express, a fancy tie only helps express the gravitas of a person of some accomplishment; however positive sentiments and integrity are reinforced by an elegant expression. This has been accomplished in Oslo and has been rightly celebrated as one significant step on the long journey to peace. 


1) is one example of the negative commentary, whose assumptions about attendance and interpretation of the event vary greatly with three eye witness accounts I have reach such as the one in footnote 2.
(2) Here is an abbreviated first person account by Rabbi Michael Melichior who participated in this event, shared by him on Facebook 23.02.2015, Circle of Peace:  As Shabbat ended yesterday evening, all us attending synagogue in Oslo that day had a very moving experience. A group of eight Muslim teenagers decided to ignore their fears, to show contempt for prejudice, to put aside all the pressures and previous notions they may have held and to take action following the terror attack in Copenhagen.

The young Muslims encircled the synagogue, in which we were praying with a human chain in order to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first. These young people created a Facebook group entitled, "Circle of Peace" in which they invited Muslims to join the initiative. Contrary to the expectations of all the skeptics and people "in the know", their Facebook call was shared by hundreds of Muslims, and as I left the house and was walking to evening prayers at the synagogue, some 1,400 Muslims, mostly young people, had already collected along the narrow street….

… I explained to those gathered that we want to spread the scent of Shabbat, the day of rest and peace, into the remainder of the week and to also spread the special scent of this historic moment in order to establish a new reality together.

One after another, in the freezing cold, the youngsters from the organizing group stood up and called on their brethren to take back ownership of Islam. That out of faithfulness to Islam, they are saying NO to anti-Semitism, as well as NO to Islamophobia and YES to building a shared society. Such a simple, accurate and true message. Each and every one spoke in the name of Allah the Merciful and Compassionate and it was clear they really meant it.

I had the honor of addressing the participants and of providing the closing remarks...

“Exactly one week earlier, Oslo's sister community in Copenhagen was gathered to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of the young girl, Hannah Bentov. The murderous perpetrator, who intended to create a bloodbath, managed to murder only the guard at the gate, Dan Uzan. After the funeral, I visited the parents of Dan and told them about the planned initiative of the young Muslims in Norway. With tears streaming down his face, Mordechai, Dan's father stood, embraced me in a tight hug and told me that this was the first time he had managed to find meaning in the brutal death of his son. Perhaps because of young Muslims in Norway, Dan's death would not be in vain. Maybe we'll be able to isolate the evil and we can join hands to build a better world. I promised to pass Mordechai's message to the young Muslims and so I did.

…Their circle is a circle of peace, brotherhood, love and solidarity, formed to protect a house of prayer, a Jewish kindergarten and a Jewish nursing home. Their circle is actually breaking a different circle, which is a cycle of fear and hatred that leads to bloodshed and murder.

I concluded, to the sound of their applause, that as a believer, I share their belief in Allahu Akbar - that G-d, in His Greatness alone, is present in every space throughout the world. And that in particular, He is present in the space between their moving circle and us Jews. For, where there is humanity, Allah wants to be more than anywhere else in the world.

(3) Part of the controversy was fuelled by photos in the media of a small number of Muslims standing holding hands.  This was used as proof that only a small number of Muslims actually attended. The real story is as follows:
a) The Synagogue is part of city block. It was impractical to circle the synagogue which is why a few people stood in front of it to symbolise the ring of peace. 
b) As witness Jude Rose stated “At the behest of the Synagogue's security people, the organisers of the event agreed that they would let about 20 mainly young Muslims inside the Synagogue's security perimeter. Those 20 symbolised the other 1300 attendants who filled the street. Look at the Rabbi's picture, taken from the Synagogue's forecourt..”
c) See previous footnote
(4) Genesis 3:21,
(5) Pirkey DRabbi Eliezer 20, cited in Torah Shlaima Bereshis Chapter 3, p.286, note 183
(6)  Beresheer Rabba 20, highlighted by Benno Jacobs, cited in Leibovitz, N., New Studies in the weekly Sidra, Shemot, Exodus, p. 529
(7)  Exodus 28:2
(8)  Exodus 28:3, see Rashi, “to sanctify him, to bring him into the priesthood through the garments that he should become a Cohen/Priest”
(9)  Chizkuni, the trousers bring atonement for sexual sins, the tunic with its noisy bells for evil speech or gossip, the plate on the forehead atones for brazenness etc. 
(10)  Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima Exdodus, Tetzave, p.157, note 24

(11)  Malbim Exodus on 28:2, Malbim differentiates between the physical clothing made by the craftsmen and the inner garments that Moses himself is commanded to make for Aaron his brother in this verse
(12)  The Lubavticher Rebbe Likutei Sichos vol. 36, p. 159, comments on the symbolism of the very long belt that the Kohanim would wear. He sees its purpose as the Kohen following the principle of “prepare yourself toward your God, oh Israel” (Amos 4:12), as a finishing touch to the garments. He links this to our own service of God and the need to prepare ourselves more generally through being humble (or more specifically the concept of Bittul which is translated as “nullifying ourselves”) before God. The belt was 32 cubits or arms lengths long, it was tied around and around the Kohen’s body, this process is symbolic of the need to humble ourselves before and give ourselves to God is a an on-going process rather than a once off. Chasidic texts link the belt to the level of the soul known  as Yechida, unity or unified, linked to  becoming one with God.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Responses to Sexual Abuse and attitudes to the secular - Mishpatim

The suffering inflicted by sexual abuse is horrific. The Jewish religious leadership in Australia has stated that the belief by some that involving secular authorities in situations of child protection is contrary to Torah is wrong. To ostracise or mistreat vulnerable people because of their speaking out in pursuit of justice and healing is both vile and a terrible sin. To protect criminals is to be complicit in their crimes. To say these things is useful, but I think it is not enough! We can’t just wash our hands of the unacceptable viewpoints that were expressed at the royal commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. Instead we must reflect on how someone who is part of the same faith community as we are, can come to hold such views. 

One element is in this is the attitude that some religious people have to the secular world. In the Torah reading this week, laws relating to damages and similar matters are introduced with the phrase: “these are the laws you shall put before them” (1).   The words “before them” are interpreted as referring to a Torah court. "Even in cases where secular law (“of idol worshippers”) is identical to the laws of Israel, it is forbidden to use them (2)”.

Let’s look at this Torah reading a little more closely. In the first instance, context is critical. There is some value in monetary disputes (within faith communities) being resolved with the assistance of learned people familiar with the principles held dear to both parties to a dispute. The case of child sexual abuse is completely different, as has been pointed out by many Australian rabbis. The obligation to protect the innocent is paramount and must be handled by those suitably equipped, namely the police and the courts. It is outrageous that anyone could be so attached to religious authority (and mistrustful/disrespectful of secular authority) as to disregard the obvious imperative of child protection by secular authorities.    

As religious people, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the capabilities of the secular society that we are so fortunate to live in. Our tradition teaches that "while the Torah is to be found among Jewish scholars, wisdom is found among people of all nations" (3). When confronted with allegations of sexual abuse, we must call on those with the expertise to deal with it and the power to lock perpetrators away.

The cries of the abused are heard by God, and the response foreshadowed in the Torah is harsh and merciless. “If he cries out to me, I will surely hear his cries and my anger will flare up, I will kill you with a sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans (4)”. I feel some sadness for one of the perpetrators, who I know. However, the welfare of survivors (and the protection of potential victims) is far more important than the suffering of the perpetrators. Our sages teach that “those who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (5).

Many years ago, Jewish law developed the concept of a “Moser”, which refers to "one who hands over a Jewish person to the authorities". This law developed during a period when governments were extremely corrupt and bigoted against Jews. A Jew could not expect a fair trial. This is not the case in Australia.

My prayer is that with all the problems exposed, my community will enjoy the benefits of a culture that fosters safety for young people, encourages whistle blowers, and fosters appropriate respect for secular wisdom and authority.

(1) Exodus 21:1
(2) Talmud Gittin 88b
(3) Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13
(4) Exodus 22:22-23
(5) Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora 1, Yalkut Shimoni, 247

Friday, February 6, 2015

Semantics? Meaning, Religion in Curriculum and Coexistence

Dr. Kevin Donnelly
“People would argue furiously, although they essentially agreed with each other” a former politician told me this week, reflecting the way that words can obscure meaning. I was thinking about this dynamic this week on my way to a meeting with, Dr. Kevin Donnelly, a critic of the Australian Curriculum along with stakeholders and academics concerned with the place of religion in curriculum. It was significant that we had all these people in the same room because on the surface it would appear that they are very far apart on the issues we were discussing. Yet, it is not clear to what extent the differences are substantial or semantic.

Dr. Donnelly’s review of the curriculum included a recommendation that many took as being about “the contribution of Western civilisation [and] our Judeo-Christian heritage” (1). This understanding was based on reading the text of a recommendation in the review which begins with a call for more “emphasis on morals, values and spirituality”, as being defined by the second part of the sentence in which the only example of this that is mentioned is that of “Judeo-Christian heritage” (2).   Donnelly has argued that he was calling for teaching about all religions.
I think the recommendation is actually advocating for three things.
 A. Students should be instructed into morality and good values.
B.  Students should learn about spirituality in its various forms.
C. The balance in the Australian Curriculum between recognition of non- Anglo/non- Christian traditions on the one hand and “Our Judeo-Christian heritage… and British” influences on the other hand, should be tipped to favour the later rather than the former.

While there is a lot to debate here, there is also some common ground.
My optimism is based in part of the idea that words are far less important than the meaning they seek to convey. This idea is one way of dealing with a series of discrepancies in the two versions of the Ten Commandments given in the Torah (3). One version prohibits “coveting” while the other forbids desire of your fellow’s house etc.  One text commands us to remember the Sabbath while the other demands we keep it. According to prominent Jewish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, this is unimportant because “the words are the body, while the meaning is the soul” (4). 

The debate about the importance of words plays out in the way another verse is interpreted. The Torah states: “and Moses went up to God, and God called him from the mountain” (5). Ibn Ezra liberally interprets this verse by reversing the sequence, suggesting that God first called Moses and only then did Moses ascend. Surely, he would not have gone up without permission! (6) What this approach gains in rational explanation it loses in nuance and potential meaning. An alternative view suggests that the sequence relates to the principle that "in holiness, there is no advance except for the one who prepares himself and is aroused..." (7) Like Moses, we are invited to take the initiative and begin to climb the spiritual mountain. If we prepare, God will respond by calling us "with endearment and greatness".

What a contrast! Of course words matter! An insightful message about spiritual growth can be inferred from the precise words. The same approaches are taken to the singular form of the word ויחן “rested” (which in Hebrew is always either be singular or plural) to tell us that "Israel camped opposite the mountain (8)". Ibn Ezra dismisses the nuance (9) while others see a hint in it, that the people overcame their differences and became “like one man with other heart” united in anticipation of receiving the Torah, (10) and “loving peace thus deserving the Torah which is all [about] peace” (11).

There are times when the words carry the meaning well, and in other times they distract from the meaning. The varying relationships between words and meaning gives me some hope that young people in Australia might one day still have the opportunity to learn about each other's inner life and be one step closer to understanding. Once we take a step ‘on the mountain’ we might be helped to go further, to truly connect with each other “as one man, with one heart” in peace and respect.

 (1) Final Report, Australian Curriculum Review,, recommendation 15 of the review of the Australian Curriculum: “ACARA revise the Australian Curriculum to place more emphasis on morals, values and spirituality as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration, and to better recognise the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia’s development”.
(2) The construct of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage has been critiqued from various perspectives. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, has reportedly expressed concern to Rabbi Avraham Shemtov about Islam being excluded from a conception of a Judeo-Christian discourse. I have not been able to verify that this is correct but I agree with the principle that there is a lot that is common to these three faiths that is not reflected in the term “Judeo-Christian”.  On the other hand I can see some merit in Christians graciously acknowledging Jewish influences on their faith. 
(3) Exodus vs. Deuteronomy…
(4) Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:1
(5) Exodus 19:3
(6) Ibn Ezra to Exodus 20:1, the question of permission is also raised by Chizkuni, however he resolves this matter in two ways. One interpretation is similar to that of Ibn Ezra. Namely, that Moses went up in response to God’s call. In his second interpretation is that Moses went up of his own accord to ask God how he wanted to be worshiped (Chizkuni, on Exodus 19:3). 
(7) Ohr Hachayim
(8) Exodus 19:2 ויחן שם ישראל
(9) Ibn Ezra suggests, I think implausibly, that Israel refers to the elders who had a prominent place near the mountain and since there were few of them they are referred to in the singular form
(10) Rashi following the approach of Mechilta
(11) Old Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 9, cited in Torah Shlaima